Creating Course Flow

When we conceive of assignments and activities for courses, we often think in terms of what students will produce — the essay, the lab report, the presentation, the finished problem set. Research suggests, however, that giving some thought to students’ experiences while they work through their assignments can increase student performance and enjoyment. Ideally, students find their assignments both challenging and engaging. Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls this optimal experience of positive engagement “flow.” A student experiencing flow is intrinsically motivated, finding enjoyment and reward in the performance of the task itself. Accordingly, people experiencing flow — whether artists, athletes, or students —want to do what they’re doing when they’re doing it, which means they tend to sustain intense concentration longer, reach higher levels of accomplishment, and perform better overall. According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow results from a proper balance between a person’s skills and a particular challenge.

Assigning tasks that challenge students beyond their current skill levels leads to anxiety; providing challenges that require relatively low skills leads to boredom. Instructors — and students themselves — should strive for the “flow channel” where skills properly meet challenges.

You can encourage flow both inside and beyond your classroom in a number of ways:

  • As you design your course, draft assignments and activities in terms of the challenges involved and the skills necessary to succeed. What skills do your assignments assume students need to possess? Can students read critically at the level required by an essay assignment, for example?
  • Determine the general skill level of your students early on in the semester. If possible, devise an early assignment, such as a response paper or annotated problem, to get a clearer sense of students’ abilities at the start of the course.
  • Take advantage of the flow dynamic. Csíkszentmihályi contends that once students experience flow, they will be motivated to regain that experience when faced with increasingly complex tasks. Students will, in other words, be more inclined to learn new skills and to do well on more difficult assignments if they experience early success.
  • Accordingly, create activities and assignments that help students develop new skills. Have students annotate problems with the steps they took to solve them, for example, or have them present and lead discussions on key course concepts. You can also model disciplinary skills in class yourself, such as doing some close reading of a difficult text.
  • Be explicit about the goals and expectations for assignments and activities, and cast them in terms of mastery. Instead of indicating that you want ‘A’ papers, for example, stress what you want your students to master, such as a complex theory and its applications, or the ability to make connections between different types of problems.
  • Take a moment to mention how much you enjoy working in your field. For example, relate an anecdote of a particular moment when something “clicked” in your own understanding of the course material. Or after a great discussion or when a student raises an excellent question, draw the class’s attention to how great that was and why.

Further Reading

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihaly, & Csíkszentmihályi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (1988).Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in ConsciousnessCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceNew York: Harper & Row.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.